Storytelling: Make Your Audience Do This 

Storytelling is the great marketing idea of the moment.

Which is a shame.

Because storytelling is much more than a marketing tool. It is intrinsic to humanity. It builds cultures, defines narratives and shapes destinies.

Leveraging the power of story isn’t easy. That’s why you see so many forgettable movies, TV shows and ads.

They haven’t failed because the people involved were not talented, or because they weren’t committed or didn’t spend enough money on the project.

They failed because they didn’t make the audience care.

To engage, an audience needs to become invested in the outcome.

In his TED talk, Andrew Stanton, the Pixar screenwriter who created films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, says that the greatest story commandment is “Make me care – please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.”

OK, but how do we make the audience care?

It requires tension. That tension – will the hero find what they want or need – makes the audience actively engage with the story. Tension is created by doling out bits and pieces of information, making them work for the story.

“Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience,” says Stanton.

Creating that tension is where the magic happens.

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Why did Finding Nemo work so well, but Stanton’s film John Carter bomb? Watch this clip from Finding Nemo – without even knowing the backstory, you are invested. Will Nemo’s dad ever get him back? We need to know.

Creating an engaging story is good art (and marketing.)

Stories, says Stanton, are “not a widget, they aren’t exact. Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.”

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As you consider your marketing or communications program, keep Stanton’s good advice in mind. Are you making your audience care? Or are you dumping the whole story on them at once, boring them and driving them away?

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is a partner with Bonfire.